1. The City
Once again on this voyage I don’t quite know what I expected when I chose a particular destination, but Chennai seems to be way more and way less than whatever that was. The smell of the city is omnipresent and intense: old urine, onions, car emissions, something cooking that smells tempting,something rotting that smells and is repulsive, a hint of flowers when there are none to be seen, incense, jasmine. People sleep in the streets day and night.It is very hot and very muggy. And at the risk of making a gross overgeneralization, the people who are not sleeping in the streets seem very pushy and very aggressive, even by my New York standards. More than just the necessary jostle to get through a crowd there appears to be a sense of wanting to get ahead, to gain an advantage, to be the first. And it is not uncommon for me to be having a conversation with some shopkeeper or hotel receptionist when I aminterrupted by someone else who simply wants to get in … now.
I did somehow manage to arrive at the guesthouse I had hoped to stay inwithout a reservation around 11PM,notwithstanding the harrowing realitythat the cab driver I rode with and his fellow Indian terrorist vehicle drivers allhave absolutely no regard for the lane of the road they are driving in and I cannot even tell if they drive on the right side or on the left. In fact I think it may change from street to street or as conditions dictate. And when red lights that hold the vehicle terrorists back on occasion indicate by their digital countdown signal that there are less than twenty seconds left before the light changes to green the honking starts, and with about ten seconds left the entire lane of cars is moving forward through the remaining red light. As for crossing the roadway as a pedestrian, although it is accomplished by me by attaching myself to any one of the Indian contortionists who do so with casual regularity, to me it seems like a feat of immense daring and perfect timing.
The guesthouse I’ve oriented myself to is locked when I get there, butafter much bell ringing is opened by a sleepy old man and an even sleepier younger man. They say everything is closed early because it is “election time,” although I’ve seen open teashops on my way into Chennai and later learn that the election itself is more than a month away. My room at this inn, complete with cold shower, toilet without toilet paper, and terrace surrounded by prison bars, is in an olden Maharaja’s home. After that it’s all down hill. The sheets have burn holes in them and I can scratch my itchyback on their roughly textured weave. The floor is concrete, cracked, dirty -no make that filthy -and has never met a rug or tile. The soles of my feet are dirty – no make that filthy–within a second or two and I have to take them into the bed with me. The walls are cracked, ancient,discolored, moldy, and covered with flaking plaster. Electric wires are hanging everywhere, although there are no electric outlets. Also no hot water, soap, towels, blankets, cabinets, or even wall hooks. There is one old rusty metal folding chair. All in all it feels a bit like a cell. We are definitely talking upgrade.
In the morning I move about the Triplicate neighborhoodstreets amongthrongs of people, cars, trucks, rickshaws, horns, mufflers, whistles, and yelling. Eye contact is rare, make that non-existent, notwithstanding that I look at people directly, and stick out as an obvious, tall, white, foreign guy. The sight ofgreen trees able to breathe and grow in the city comforts me. The calling of crows with gray collars that make it look like they too are dirtyalso helps, although I ’m quite sure that what the kahkahs – which is Tamil for crow - are saying and asking me is, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing here?” And, of course, the crow guides’ question is the absolutely right question, which I don’t really know the answerto (on a spiritual quest? studying yoga?), because all I’ve found so far, at least to my eyes, is a dirty, highly polluted, teeming, and somewhat nondescript, gray city. Besides, what I really want to know first, even before I try to answer the crows, is can my diet for the next five weeks in India really consist of only bananas, cashew nuts, Kit Kat bars, and water?
My favorite moments are when taxi drivers seeking to take me on as a fare while I walk aimlessly as the only obvious foreigner through the streets ask me, “Where are you going?” And I reply, “I have no idea.” And I really don’t.Over the course of four days in Chennai dozens of people ask me, what I am doing here, which I can’t answer, followed by the even more pointed and revealing question “Okay, but why did you choose Chennai?” And for three days I tell all of them, I really don’t know.
My first full day in India is salvaged in large part when an engaging rickshaw driver named Giri introduces himself to me with small talk and a handshake, and then offers to be my guide. “Lucky day for me, sir, lucky day for you.”
Of course Giri is proposing that he show me forts, churches, high-end craft shops (which cut him a commission on anything they sell to folks he delivers), and temples, none of which interest me. And when Giri asks where I would like to go I have to say,“I have no idea,”and I really don’t.
Fortunately there are practicalities. I need cash. I need to find a yoga studio, and an Internet cafe. I need to change residences. I need to get to a bookstore. I need some new reading glasses to replace the three dollar ones I bought in Myanmar, which have already broken. I need to figure out what I’m going to “do” in Chennai while Chennai is doing me,and how long I’m staying in Chennai, or in anyother place in India, before I rendezvous with Sam in Delhi in three weeks. And for these purposes the travel gods could not have sent me a better guide than Giri, who laughs contagiously, lives with his wife (the only woman he has ever “known”) and two sons in the village he was born in an hour by train out of Chennai, and from where he commutesdaily to his three wheel taxirickshaw which he leaves in the evening with his mechanic brother-in-lawwho lives in Chennai, and who I have to and do meet of course.
These errands take hours and hours as Giri drives me to and fro across the city, even squeezing in a few of the high-end craft shopsthat I really don’t want to go to where I resist skilled salesmen, offers of tea, and some truly remarkably beautiful (and expensive), museum level antique art pieces. “You must bargain, sir,” instructs Giri.
Every time we drive passed the US Consulate, which happens about four or five times as we speed around the city, Giri says, “There is your country, Sir.” Every time we pass the Indian Tax Collection offices (next to the Consulate), Giri says, “Wery bad business, sir, wery bad.” And as the day proceeds Giri becomes more and more comfortable advising me rather than deferring to me. “Let us not go to the Internet now, Boss, vaste of time.” “No, do not stay at that hotel, Sir, vhy vaste money?”“Money flies, Sir. Money comes. Money goes. You are wery good customer. Giri unhappy if sir vaste his money.” “Vhy take long train - bump, bump, bump – wery slow, wery dirty. You fly, Sir.” “No, Boss, no need go Bengalooru. Must see Mamallapurm. Stay overnight, then Puduchcheri.” At one point, after one of any number of very near crasheswe have withtrucks, buses, cars, taxi rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows, another taxi driver pulls along side us and pointing at Giri says to me, “He is my brother.” And I say to him, “He is my brother too.“ And Giri laughs. And the other driver laughs. And I laugh. And after we drive away Giri says, “He is not really my brother, sir.”
By late afternoon I’ve gotten cash, found an acceptable yoga studio, found a reasonably priced hotel within walking distance of the studio, gotten to a bookstore,taken my first yoga class in India, and made arrangements with Giri to chauffer me about the next day to see the beach, to consult with a travel agent,to continue our search for prescription eyeglasses and to at least partially answer the question “where are you going?” if not the subtler “why are you here.”
3. Yoga in Chennai
I select a yoga studio named 136.1. On its website the studio describes 136.1 as the vibrational frequency at which the chant of Om is heard and at which the Earth vibrates. A man who tells me his name is Norisur and who works at the yoga studio front desk introduces me to the studio. It takes me about four tries at pronouncing his name before I understand he is saying, “Norris, sir.”
I take a hatha class with a handsome flexible man in his early forties (late thirties?) named Ramaman, mostly slow and simple sun salutations, with an immense amount of attention to relaxation, chanting, and pranayama. Over the next few days I take a few classes with the young andbeautiful Joshna, who promises to tell me about yoga in Pune and Rishikesh, and I attend a three day workshop at the studio with the very energetic, commanding, and loud voiced Swapna Gangadharan, a visiting teacher from Hyderabad, who lived and taught on the lower east side of New York for a couple of years, studied with and taught with Rodney Yee, and has returned to her home city of Hyderabad to open an organic market and yoga center. Her classes arevery fundamental but quitephysically challenging in terms of the length of the holds, and I really enjoy sweating. And although I don’t feel I have learned anything (the student is obviously not ready) I do periodically have an absolutely magical moment when I realize that I am actually in India in a yoga class.
No class I take has more than eight participants. All other than me seem to be Indians andI am by far the oldest and most experienced (though hardly the strongest) student in each class. The women are all slightly or more than slightlypudgy and do the classes in full dress or at least long pants and big blouses. No woman other than the very young Joshna wears so much as a halter, and no woman wears shorts in yoga, or anywhere I’ve seen, even on Indian music TV. I do learn in my yoga classes that the parts of the leg above the knee are known as the “ties,” that the parts below the knee are known as the “khawfs,” and that we should try to relax them. Wery good so far.
I choose not to live only on bananas, Kit Kat bars, and water andbranch out, beginning with coffee and samosas at a high end coffee shop in the building my yoga studio is in, and a veggie burgerat a fast food restaurant in the same building … all quite pale. Next morning I havehot coffee made with tap water at a local outdoor vendor’s-who insists I sit down in his open air shop to drink the coffee - and puts me at a table with another man who doesn’t look me in the eye for the entire ten minutes we are seated alone together, notonce. I observe the water drawn from the tap and the unrefrigerated milk steaming before I drink the coffee. The man across from me is served some kind of mashed potato and lentils with a red sauce and a white sauce on a piece of waxed paper on a tray without dishes, and without utensils or napkins. The man’s hands are filthy. He eats his meal with his fingers, pinching some of the potato mix between his fingers, dipping it into the sauces well passed his first finger joint and then shoveling the food into his mouth. He drinks water directly from a bottle of tap water left on the table for customers to share. Aftereating his meal he rinses his hands at the nearby sink and wipes them on his already filthy pants. My coffee is good.
I return to my twenty-dollar hotel where a complimentary breakfast, which is also quite good, is served me on a tray delivered to my room. I particularly like what I think is a masala dhosa, but I have no idea what I am eating and return to bananas, cashews, and Kit Kat bars in the evening. Next day, at my clean (okay, cleaner) new forty dollar hotel where I have two rooms to spread out in I eat the hotel’s buffet breakfast, which is actually fabulous:a couple of dishes that look like mashed potatoes but have truly awesome and adventurous spicing, pancakes with something very tasty in them, a fried donut that may has chunks of ginger in it, fresh peeled fruit (don’t ask me how prepared or vashed), and hot coffee with milk already mixed in that the buffet staff will not let me pour myself but pour for me in the very stylized manner of raising the pitcher as high above the cup as possible and then pouring the coffeeinto the cup moving the pitcher deftly up and down (so that the coffee cools on the way down?) while the coffee twists in a downward spiral into the cup. There are utensils. Some people use them. Other folks eat with their hands. Some of the wait staff walk around barefooted. The food is so good I have to force myself away from the buffet to awoid feeling stuffed. In time I trust I will return to using “v”s instead of “w”s, but I find the Indian accent very “quaint” and cute, among not much else that is cute, althoughI am practicing bobbing my head from side to side, which I’ve mostly stopped thinking means “no” and am conwinced is wery good for keeping neck vertebrae loose and awoiding real anger in the endless play of speed, aggression, and disregard that seem to me to characterize so many street level interactions. (Even on music videos on TV I see young men depicted slapping women, pulling women around, and fighting with one another.) By the end of day three, when I eat in the Palm Grove Hotel’s restaurant, which I am told is one of the finest veggie restaurants in Chennai, I order dhosas and naans delivered to me by barefooted wait staff, and which I eat, after I wash and hopefully have sanitized my hands, with my fingers, dipping them into the sauces like the Indians do.
5. Day Three
Being in a comfortable hotel, after a couple of days of night and early morning yoga classes, and a lot of running around in between classes, I choose to just chill out this day, other than attend yoga classes, of course, and to walk around a slum which gives totally new meaning to the word slum,and where the collection of houses is called a hutment. I also spend a couple of hours in an Internet locale (I just can’t call a long dirty overcrowded wery hot and stuffy closet with a row of computers a café), and some time reading a very basic Hinduism for beginners book I’ve bought. I alsomake another of my multiple visits to travel agentsarmed with my big,now annotated by me, India map that I spread out on their desks trying to figure out where, how, and even more to the point, why I am going wherever it is I am going next between Chennai and my rendezvous with Sam in Delhi, over 2,000 kilometers away, in three weeks. The travel gods and goddesses have not revealed their plan yet, although I know the guides are still smilingwhen I discover that my travel pouch, which I’ve left under the mattress with credit cards, some money, and Miles’ ashes in the last hotel before I checked out at noon is still there when I return late that night hoping to fetch it. I am also slowly desensitizing myself (a practicebegun in SE Asia)while walking in the streets, from thinking every horn that blows nearby must be directed at me. And I’ve actually had two, count them, two, Indian women smile back at me when I smiled at them. And one woman actually said thank you when I held a door open for her, a practice I’m also trying to break myself of, since people who hold open doors in India are clearly either paid underlings or deranged. In this regard, in for me what was a very funny moment, on my second day cruising around with Giri we stopped at the beach near where a tsunami hit about three years ago and took out most of the government built (and not rebuilt) fisherman’s housing. (No, Giri, I do not want to see temples. No, not churches either Giri. No, not high end shops, not government offices, not museums. Just show me India please, where people live. Let’s go to a market, a grocery store, a pharmacy searching for hand sanitizer.) Anyhow, after I get out of the rickshaw to buy a bottle of water from a vendor on the beach … (No, Giri, I do not want to sit here while you fetch the water for me, I want to get it myself. Yes, Giri, you can come to protect me from the dangers I will face dealing with askinny one hundredand ten year old destitute Indian woman selling water to put rice on her table and clearly intending to exploit me if you want … or you just sit here in the rickshaw.) When we get back with the bottle of water, which Giri checks to make sure the cap has not been loosened, Giri gets into the rickshaw and I squat down outside the rickshaw drinking the water and casually chatting w Giri about something – where to go next, or the drying of fish on sand – when Giri anxiously asks me to please get inside the rickshaw because it makes him uncomfortable to be seen with me squatting outside his rig looking up to him. “Fuck it, Giri,” I say,“who cares?”“No, no, please Mr. Bruce, it is not right for you to be there. Please, more better you sit in rickshaw.”
After yoga on Saturday night I’m talking with one of the men in the class when it dawns on me that he is not Indian, and as I pursue my conversation with him he tells me that he is an Israeli born music producer who has been living in Chennai for eight years. And when I querying him about my further travel in India, Yotam has some very definite opinions, ideas, and experiences he wants to share with me and invites me to come over to his studio later in the evening. And while I don’t know it at that moment, when I get to Yotam’s studio and spend some time with him I form the definite opinion that Yotam is why I came to Chennai and that the guides have spoken to me through him. But more Yotam as may be revealed later. I’m off to Mamallahpurm. (Sorta sounds Yiddish, no?)